President Trump ratcheted up his harsh rhetoric against North Korea on Thursday, escalating a war of words with Pyongyang over its nuclear missile program and refusing to rule out a pre-emptive military action against the North if it carries out a threat against U.S. forces in Guam.
After a briefing with his national security advisers, Mr. Trump passed up several opportunities to lower the temperature in the crisis, which has jolted states across East Asia. At one point, he insisted that his threat earlier this week to deliver “fire and fury” on the regime of Kim Jong-un if it did not back down “wasn’t tough enough.”
“They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years,” he told reporters, referring to the North’s repeated provocations via its nuclear pursuits in the face of a slew of U.S. and international sanctions. “It’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries.”
Speaking to reporters at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is taking a working vacation, Mr. Trump said, “North Korea better get their act together, or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world.”
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson this week appeared to be trying to ease fears of an imminent military clash, but the Pentagon confirmed that it is considering military solutions to the North Korean challenge.
Although many in Congress have slammed Mr. Trump’s forceful language in recent days, others, including Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, have come to the president’s defense and said North Korea bears the blame for escalating the crisis.
Pyongyang’s accelerated efforts to develop a miniature nuclear bomb and the missiles to deliver it as far as the U.S. mainland, in the face of stringent opposition and sanctions from the international community, have crossed a dangerous threshold over the past several weeks, prompting threats of retaliation and pre-emption from the White House.
Two successful tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile system in July, coupled with reports that Pyongyang has mastered the technology to fit a small nuclear warhead atop those missiles, prompted Mr. Trump to vow to rain “fire and fury” on the North if it did not stop threatening the U.S.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump went further, calling his warning to Pyongyang “not a dare but a statement.”
Despite Mr. Trump’s tough talk, his administration continues publicly to advocate for a diplomatic solution to the burgeoning crisis on the Korean Peninsula. But infighting among various factions inside the White House over whether the North Korea problem can be resolved through negotiations or whether military action may be necessary has muddled the White House’s message to Pyongyang.
Although the U.N. Security Council voted 15-0 to impose punitive new sanctions on North Korea, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said through a spokesman that he was troubled by the belligerent tone from all sides in the confrontation.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Mr. Guterres “welcomes all initiatives that will help de-escalate the tensions and a return to diplomacy.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that the Pentagon has drafted a military solution to North Korea’s actions but stressed repeatedly that the Pentagon favors a peaceful resolution.
“The American effort is diplomatically led, has diplomatic traction and is gaining diplomatic results,” Mr. Mattis told reporters Thursday. “And I want to stay right there right now. The tragedy of war is well enough known. It does not need another characterization beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic.”
In Bedminster, Mr. Trump denied that his advisers were divided over how to handle a problem that has bedeviled U.S. administrations stretching back decades.
“To be honest, Gen. Mattis may have taken it a step beyond what I said,” Mr. Trump told reporters, adding that his administration would remain open to negotiations with Pyongyang if the North gives up its threatening nuclear and missile programs.
Mr. Mattis remained largely mum on details of that military solution, which theoretically would curb Pyongyang’s efforts to develop a nuclear-capable ballistic missile arsenal, except to say that any military option would involve a number of regional powers in the Pacific.
Any war plan is complicated by the vulnerability of U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. Both are well within range of the North’s arsenal, and both house large numbers of American troops.
The North Korean military has responded to Mr. Trump’s threats by saying it had completed a war plan to simultaneously launch four non-nuclear Hwasong-12 rockets that could land in the waters just off the U.S. territory of Guam, a plan that was now sitting on Kim Jong-un’s desk.
U.S. defense and national security officials have repeatedly touted the capabilities of the American missile defense shield over the past several weeks in the wake of North Korea’s missile tests in July. Both flew higher and farther than any other long-range missiles tested by the regime. Mr. Trump has made revamping U.S. missile defense systems a top objective for the Pentagon since taking office.
American commanders in July swiftly initiated a public display of military might, beginning hours after North Korea’s second successful launch of its long-range ballistic missile, culminating with a flyover by a pair of nuclear-capable U.S. bombers over the peninsula.
The Guam-based supersonic B-1 bombers, accompanied by a number of South Korean fighters, performed a series of low-altitude passes over a key air base near Seoul on July 30, in a mission designed as a calculated response to the North Korean missile tests, officials from U.S. Pacific Command confirmed at the time. American and South Korean forces also performed a series of live-fire drills using the U.S. missile defense weapons based in the region.
Mr. Trump’s increasingly hawkish position toward North Korea is based in part on evidence provided by U.S. intelligence agencies, which the president has routinely lambasted for its failures in Iraq and elsewhere. But on Thursday, Mr. Trump espoused nothing but confidence in their findings on North Korea because “it’s different intelligence.”
“I have Mike Pompeo,” the president said of his hand-picked CIA director. “I have great confidence in him. That doesn’t mean I had confidence in his predecessor, OK? Which I didn’t, actually.” Mr. Trump was referring to former CIA Director John O. Brennan, with whom he has feuded.
Mr. Tillerson has been the face and chief advocate of the White House’s public push for diplomacy on North Korea, touting the U.N. Security Council’s 15-0 vote this week to impose crippling economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Washington’s efforts to get Russia and China to back the sanctions is seen as a major diplomatic win for the White House.
Mr. Trump flatly dismissed claims of infighting within his national security team over North Korea. “There are no mixed messages,” he said.
• Dave Boyer and S.A. Miller contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.